'I see the people happy, so can it happen for me? 'Cos when I have no energy, there's nothing that can move me'
-Kate Bush, 'Sat in Your Lap'
Recently a group of Stanford scientists led by Alex Jordan published an article in the 'Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin' about a tendency people have to overestimate other people's happiness, which usually ends up leading to increased dejection and unhappiness. A good write up can be found on Slate, and there has been considerable discussion since in the blogosphere, Twitt-o-sphere, really all the spheres.
The fact that the research was inspired by one of the less-fulfilling aspects of Facebook triggered much of the discussion:
Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends' reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. "They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," he told me.
I have noticed that I tend to have a feeling of emptiness and disappointment after nearly every interaction I have with Facebook, but hadn't thought thought about the underlying reasons for that so much. It does make sense, although I also hate Facebook for other reasons, including the fact that it's 'walled off' from the otherwise more open web, and the occasional feeling of being pressured to 'friend' people I am not really friends with (mainly co-workers or distant relatives I'm not particularly cozy with), which then leads to a pressure to to be fake about how happy you are and how great everything is, which in turn brings everybody down, as science has now proved, because you forget everybody else is frantically trying to fake being happy, too.
This ties in to a broader tendency I've noticed for people to focus on the positive to an absurd and unrealistic degree, almost to the point of seeing any kind of negativity as pathological, and seeing 'negative people' as pariahs to be avoided at all costs. Not to be too negative, but I think this emphasis on 'positivity' is destroying the world. Some examples:
- Being optimistic that invading a country and establishing a new U.S.-friendly regime and society there will be a 'cakewalk'
- Thinking home prices will go up forever
- Not being a gloomy Gus and worrying about energy dependency
- Believing you are great at multitasking, including texting and driving at the same time
- Thinking you don't have to pay taxes because you are Wesley Snipes
The list could go on and on.
It is possible the over-optimism is a reaction to the over-pessimism of the 90s. I'm looking at you, Billy Corgan. Billy was only one of the many songwriters in the 90s who'd say some variation on the following in interviews:
People ask why my lyrics are so depressing and negative. When I'm happy, I want to celebrate that I'm happy and have fun, I don't want to write about it.
Kurt Cobain was the patron saint of 90s mope-rock. He became a superstar singing about how crappy life is, and then shot himself in the head with a shotgun.
There are some promising signs that a more balanced view of reality is on the rise in popular culture. A good example is Louis CK's show 'Louie'. Louis is a very talented comedian, and the show is very funny, but at the same time Louis does not in any way shy away from talking about some of the unhappy realities of life after 40, including the gradual decline in health and realization that your best days may be behind you. He deals with really nasty people - a heckler, a kid threatening to beat him up, Nick DiPaolo - but on the other hand he really loves his daughters and finds great fulfillment in his role as their father, and he has the respect of his peers and confidence in his capabilities as a comedian.
Marc Maron's very popular WTF podcast includes Marc's honest observations about his life and life in general, including some things that are real downers like career disappointments and divorce. I've also learned from listening to his show that almost all of my favorite comedians are on medication.
It's strange that comedians (except Kyle 'Be positive at all costs' Cease) are the ones bringing us back to our senses, but somebody needed to do it, and best that it's people who can also make us laugh help us deal with it all.
As for Facebook, I can't quit it (yet), but I take some comfort in the fact that I'm not alone in finding it to be not only a time-suck but a soul-suck, too.